Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (18:03): The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Student Assistance and Other Measures) Bill 2021, in its primary form, is really a tidying up of some loose ends around the support for isolated children and people who receive support under Abstudy. It goes to the heart of the requirement to provide tax file numbers. Sometimes, when incomes are not important for that part of the grant, the Commonwealth doesn’t need to know those tax file numbers. The other case, of course, is where younger people are involved who are not entitled to a tax file number. In fact, I met with the Isolated Children’s Parents Association in my office today. We discussed a number of issues and we ticked off on this one as well. This will tidy up some loose accounts which they will be most appreciative of.
For the record, the block amount in assistance to isolated children is indexed to the CPI and is $11,011 per annum. Of that, $8,557 is a grant that comes basically without question. There is a further $2,454 of additional payment, depending on parental income—hence, the need for a tax file number—and the actual boarding costs of the student. These arrangements are roughly similar to the Abstudy payments as well as are the criteria surrounding them. That is where this legislation cuts across those payments.
Isolated children are also eligible for the district education allowance, and that is significant. There is also the tertiary access payment—and 2021 is its first year of operation—which is the relocation grant for those students who have to relocate to another place and set up some kind of accommodation. That is a one-off $5,000 grant. The criterion there is that you must be 90 minutes or more from your place of education by public transport. The vast majority in the electorate of Grey would qualify for that since the recent extension of Grey towards the city.
The treatment of country students was one of the issues that galvanised me to get involved with politics at a higher level than just supporting my local Liberal Party branch. We wanted our children to access the last three years of secondary education in the city rather than in our small country town, which has a very good school but years 9, 10 and 11 are quite limited in the subjects that are available. My first daughter had her heart set on being a chemical engineer. In those days chemistry was one of the requirements, unsurprisingly, yet chemistry was not on offer at the local school.
When I queried the education department about that issue I said, ‘She can’t do year 12 chemistry there.’ They said, ‘Yes, we will do it through distance education.’ I said, ‘That’s interesting because you can’t do year 11 chemistry there.’ They said, ‘Year 11 chemistry isn’t a prerequisite for year 12.’ I thought this system isn’t working correctly. It is one of the reasons that I got involved. We got our kids through the education system, but we had no assistance at all from governments at any level, except when the kids went off and did some work and we were able to access independent youth allowance for them.
I pursued some things through my party’s mechanisms, and I had the opportunity to get elected to federal parliament. I came here determined to make life better in this area. That was the 2007 election. The result of that election was that then Prime Minister Rudd’s team with the then education minister Julia Gillard actually severed the pathway for independent youth allowance that my children had been able to access. They made it far more difficult for others in a similar situation to access. Essentially, there was no government support to get these students into higher level education in the city. It has been a long battle. I have been here 13 years now and we have incrementally won back what we lost and gone further. Country students are now in a better position when it comes to that kind of support than they have ever been. Having said that, there is still more to do. While they are better supported than in the past and while the percentages of country students accessing tertiary education have risen, so too has the number of city students accessing tertiary education. In fact, the gap, if you like, has widened rather than closed, even though we have got more country students as a percentage of the cohort in tertiary education.
This is an ongoing issue for regional Australia. Most of our industries that actually drive regional Australia now are becoming higher and higher technology. The primary industry in regional Australia is agriculture—and I guess the other one is resources. Both of them require people with higher education to actually access the best information and the best technologies available to provide the right outcome for Australia. So we need our bright kids—and they are bright—to be able to access tertiary education and bring those skills home to the farm and home into our communities to drive our communities to the next level. So we will need to keep campaigning in that space.
There have been some good moves, though, including the government investment over the last few years into the uni level—the spoke level, if you like. You need a driver in local communities, and in some of mine it is the local council. We have three uni hubs established in Grey at the moment. The first at Port Pirie, the second at Port Augusta and the third at Kadina—and I think we’ve got the opportunity to maybe establish one or two more yet. There isn’t a regional university as such in the electorate of Grey but there is a regional campus of UniSA in Whyalla. So that community is probably pretty well serviced.
The purpose of the uni hubs is to provide a space and a bit of assistance for students to tackle distance education in a more friendly and supportive environment than trying to just battle through it on their own at home. The Port Pirie uni hub, which was the first established and is in its third year of operation, now has, I understand, around 120 students, which is pretty good. But it’s not just about kids. Sure, kids leave school and they want to do tertiary studies. Many times some of those will be attracted to the idea of going to a major university campus anyway, but others can’t for all kinds of reasons. They might be the primary caregiver in their family or they might have other issues that mean that they have to stay at home or feel as though they have to stay at home. So it’s provided a real opportunity there.
We have come to know, and recognise quite well, that education is an ongoing and lifelong pursuit. So people are able to come back and get top-up degrees or get their first degree and actually get a start even though they may have already had a stint in the workforce or they may have already raised a family. There are all kinds of different points within people’s lives now where they will seek that higher education. You can imagine that if you have a young family, you are the primary caregiver and you are trying to get to university and then maybe trying to juggle online distance learning at home, the idea of being able to go into a campus where you get a bit of support and where you have a cohort to work with is a far more supportive outcome than previously.
I know this young man—though he probably doesn’t like me describing him as young anymore—who I first came across when I was elected as the member for Grey back in 2007. He was the apprentice of the year in Port Augusta. I knew his parents and him—even though he had not come from Port Augusta; he’d come from up the road at Ceduna—and I was so thrilled to be there and see his achievement. He worked a number of jobs and then found himself with a good local business and worked his way up through the system where he was basically the leading hand for a company employing 70 people. He is very, very good at what he does. He came to that uni hub opening in Port Augusta. He said: ‘This is just what I’ve been looking for. I was terrible at school. I left at the end of year 10, and my parents, my teachers and I were all in agreement that it would be a good thing.’ He said: ‘I wasn’t applying myself then but I have now. I realise now that, if I want to go to the next level, I’m going to have to get some tertiary education.’ He said, ‘This will be perfect for me’. He has since graduated and he has got his ticket and he is moving on to a different part of the world. That’s a real celebration of what those uni hub arrangements can do.
So things have changed. Things are far better than when I got here in 2007. We went backwards, but I don’t think it was intended. I don’t think Minister Gillard, who was education minister at the time, intended to do damage, but she did, and we had to reconstruct the independent youth allowance criteria to make it work in a better way.
Another thing we did in that area was remove the family farm from the assets test. Many have spoken in this place before about family farms being worth a lot of money on paper but sometimes not producing a lot of income. I think it’s quite right and proper that the income tests remain, because, if you’re making money, you’re making money, and, if you’re not, you’re not. That’s quite simple, and I’m very happy to repeat that premise. But, certainly, removing the assets test has allowed more students to access that independent pathway than would have otherwise been the case, and that is a good outcome.
Generally speaking, I’ve been pleased with the government’s action in the area of trying to address the imbalance with the country. I think we’ve got more to do, and I think we’re going to have to keep applying ourselves. Let’s hope that there are some more regional universities established in Australia over time. But, as I said at the start, this particular piece of legislation tidies up some loose ends and makes it a little easier for some people to get on with their lives, so I support it.